By Sonia Weiser
If it weren’t for podcasts, I’d never know what day it was. So I’m grateful that even during the COVID-19 pandemic, shows are sticking to their regimented publishing schedules, projecting normalcy in a time when few of us can recall what being normal entails. As a listener, I’ve grown reliant on these strangers talking amongst themselves as a supplement for my usual social interactions and appreciate that they’re commenting on “these unusual circumstances” in a thoughtful, coherent way, so that all I have to do is agree rather than fumble together some profound response of my own.
And for podcast creators, having the opportunity to continue doing their job has proven equally cathartic. “I think there’s something really comforting about still being able to be creative under such limited circumstances,” said Helen Hong, the co-host of Maximum Fun’s Go Fact Yourself and frequent panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. “You know, I’m still able to be funny, I’m still able to be creative, and I’m literally in my closet not wearing pants, right? And thank god for that.”
Both Go Fact Yourself and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, along with another one of my recommendations, NPR’s Ask Me Another, are usually taped in front of a live audience, so unlike some of my other picks on this list that function just as well when recorded from a basement with the help of video conference calls as they do from a recording studio, these three had to power through a bit of an adjustment period to find the right balance of commentary and tomfoolery.
After their first post-quarantine episode, Wait Wait added canned laughter in response to listener feedback. “There were two schools of thought. Some people really enjoyed it and some people thought it was weird,” said Helen. “Some people were like, ‘it kind of freaked me out, that something I turn to for comfort is so different now,’ [while] some people were like, ‘thanks for doing it. It was weird but refreshing.”
🧷 New Episode Alert! 📺
Fewer Guests, Fewer Games, Longest Episode Yet?!
— Go Fact Yourself podcast (@GoFactYourPod) April 17, 2020
I told Helen that I fell into the latter category: the bonkers sound effects, the mildly frenetic energy emanating from Peter Segal—hell, if NPR employees, the bastions of even-keeled reportage, can be bouncing off the walls, then who was I to try and fight that same urge?
“The basic tenet of comedy is that you have to speak the truth,” she continued. “If something is not ringing true, it’s not as funny.” But without their usual live-audience available to provide instant feedback, Helen and the rest of the Wait Wait team just have to hope that what they think is funny will resonate with the people stuck at home.
For Ask Me Another, the long-running trivia game show hosted by comedian Ophira Eisenberg with musician Jonathan Coulton, finding the optimal vibe was similarly challenging. When the program is recorded live, the unpredictability of the audience as a whole and that of the individual contestants is fuel for the hosts’ repartee. But now, with only themselves and their “friendtestants,” the buddies they’ve called upon to fill in for traditional contestants, to use as joke fodder, the goal became less about entertaining an audience of strangers and more about entertaining each other. “We definitely got some very positive feedback from everybody who was listening, I think in part because they were just glad to hear we were still making the show, and also because they like that shift in tone,” said Jonathan.
— Ophira Eisenberg (@OphiraE) April 25, 2020
Looking for other podcasts that are delivering on schedule?
Here are a few more personal recommendations that haven’t let the pandemic stand in the way of recording. [Let us know more of your favorites in the comments below.]
Las Culturistas: I first discovered Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers when they appeared as guests on Ask Me Another and have become a loyal fan of their podcast ever since. Bowen, an SNL writer and cast member, and Matt, a comedian, TV writer, and host of Quibi’s Gayme Show, talk life and culture with a special guest for nearly two hours each week, diving headfirst into the best and worst of whatever’s fluttering around the zeitgeist. It’s no exaggeration to say that Las Culturistas has gotten me through some hard times.
Urgent Care: Tackling all of life’s questions that you’d rather not ask a licensed professional, comedians Joel Kim Booster and Mitra Jouhari spend an hour a week responding to listener voicemails and emails about the problems weighing on people’s minds. While I’ve enjoyed this podcast since its start, I’ve found great comfort in hearing that petty gripes and squabbles continue to rear their heads even during times of great strife.
This week on @UrgentCarePod, @ihatejoelkim & @tweetrajouhari give listeners advice on how to feel about watching friends try to make viral content, code switching for friends’ parents over Zoom, if it’s weird to say “thank you” after sex, and more. https://t.co/lbwtJWyoaX pic.twitter.com/KbKmRyt3D7
— Earwolf (@earwolf) April 23, 2020
Savage Lovecast: Dan Savage has been the go-to guy for sex and relationship questions since he launched his Savage Love column in Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger back in 1991. Known for his candor and quality advice, Dan also delivers his infinite wisdom through your speakers with his podcast, Savage Lovecast. In keeping with our times, his episodes have recently included quarantine sex stories and listener queries on how to stay safe and sexy during a pandemic.
My Favorite Murder: Combining true crime and comedy, hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark regale each other and their audience with stories of real murders. Unlike other true crime podcasts that focus on the drama and the journalism, My Favorite Murder is a reflection of the hosts’ fascination and obsession with the truly gory and hearing their excitement and horror as they learn more about a terrifying deed is a truly joyful, not to mention distracting, experience.
It’s Been a Minute: It takes real skill to turn a podcast about the week’s news into something that’s not just tolerable, but also enjoyable. Yet Sam Sanders has figured out the formula for distilling seven days’ worth of chaos into easy listening. In addition to his Friday Weekly Wraps, he also posts full-length interviews with special guests ranging from novelists to fellow journalists to actors, musicians, and everyone in between.
Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard: On most occasions, I’d be reluctant to recommend a podcast that frequently strays north of 2 hours long, but given that most of us are stuck at home, now seems like the perfect time to tuck into a lengthier production. Hosted by multi-hyphenates Dax Shepard and Monica Padman, Armchair Expert is part free-rolling conversation part interview. Every guest, whether an academic, a doctor, a comedian, or a former FBI hostage negotiator, gives Dax and Monica, and by extension, us, access to parts of themselves that most interviewers never earn. And often, it’s as therapeutic for me as it seems to be for them.
Author of best selling books- Untamed, Love Warrior and Carry on Warrior- GLENNON DOYLE chats with us today!! And we also have a very special extra face joining us as well 😉 @GlennonDoyle @KristenBell @daxshepard 🍒🍒🍒🍒🍒 pic.twitter.com/XgSbrutg2j
— Armchair Expert Podcast (@ArmchairExpPod) April 23, 2020
So the next time you’re cleaning under your refrigerator or taking a walk by yourself, turn on a podcast and let yourself tune out this world while remaining connected to it.
Sonia Weiser is a freelance writer and has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, TIME, New York Magazine, among others. She’s currently working (ish) on her debut novel and running the “Opportunities of the Week” newsletter for the freelance writing community. Follow her @weischoice on Twitter and visit her website.